In the months just passed I’ve pursued an exploration of the myth of disenchantment—the notion that our civilization, for the first time in human history, has shaken off the comforting daydreams of myth and magic in order to see the universe in all its cold and uncaring reality. So far, in the course of that exploration, we’ve heard from Max Weber, who gave the idea of disenchantment that convenient label; Jason Josephson-Storm, whose book a few years ago challenging Weber’s idea helped launch this discussion; Ken Wilber, the would-be prophet of integral consciousness; and Owen Barfield, whose philosophy of original and final participation gets to the same place as Wilber by a very different route.
The latter two writers, like Weber himself, did their level best to consign enchantment to the dustbin of the past. The writer at the heart of this week’s discussion, Jean Gebser, did the same thing. As we’ll see, he did it for many of the same reasons. Unlike Wilber, whose name was all over the intellectual end of the media in recent decades, and Barfield, who never achieved that level of fame but still has a significant cultural presence, Gebser receives little attention today outside certain very rarefied intellectual circles. That’s unfortunate but, as we’ll see, it’s also understandable, because Gebser took his theory just that little bit further than Wilber or Barfield, and the results—well, we’ll get to that.
Let’s start with a glimpse at the man himself. Born to a politically well-connected family in Posen, in what was then the German Empire and is now part of Poland, he spent time living in various corners of Europe, including a stint as an official in the Ministry of Education in Spain. In 1939, realizing what was about to happen to Europe, he had the great good sense to leave France for Switzerland, where he spent the rest of his life. It was during his Swiss years that he did most of his philosophical writing, and also became a published poet. His most important work, Ursprung und Gegenwart (available in English as The Ever-Present Origin), appeared in a series of editions from 1949 to 1953; he died in 1973.
His ideas, or at least the rough outline of them, will be instantly familiar to most readers who know their way around the cultural avant-garde of the last half-century or so. He’s the thinker who came up with the idea, exploited six ways from Sunday by ideologues of countless varieties since his time, that human consciousness has evolved over historical time through a specific set of definable stages or structures. Each of these structures, he argued, is an improvement on the ones that came before it, and the turmoil of the present day represents the birth pangs of yet another structure, which will take up the good parts of our current structure of consciousness while leaving behind all of its problems and limitations.
He traced out five such structures in the history of human consciousness. The first, the archaic structure, is the foundation from which all other structures arise, and was surpassed so long ago that it can only be guessed at today from traces in later structures It was a condition in which human consciousness was completely merged with the environment and experienced no separation at all between the self and the world. It is symbolically zero-dimensional.
The second, the magical structure, represents the first and most primitive distinction between the self and the world. Within the magical structure, the human individual can listen to the voice of the world—this expresses itself in later times as divination—and can act on the world by the use of representations—this expresses itself in later times as magic. In this structure, there is no distinction between the symbol and the thing it symbolizes, the word and the thing it denotes, and to act on one is to act on the other. It is symbolically one-dimensional, and may be represented by the point.
The third, the mythical structure, emerges from the magical structure once human beings begin to notice the rhythmic repetition of events in their environment and experiences in themselves. In this stage the universe is experienced as a collection of persons, which can be best described and explained by way of stories. Names and words in this structure have a polarized quality that makes them endlessly confusing for people in our more advanced structure: in the mythical structure, every concept includes its opposite. This is logically impossible, but logic hasn’t yet been born in the mythical structure. It is symbolically two-dimensional, and may be represented by the circle.
The fourth, the mental structure, is the structure in which we (however this slippery word “we” is defined) currently function. It emerged from the mythical structure once the sides of each polarity were broken apart into distinct concepts by the use of logic. In this way words, which were instruments of power in the magical structure and complex constellations of meaning in the mythical structure, became simple formulae with meanings that could be defined exactly. It is symbolically three-dimensional, but its representation for Gebser was confusingly enough not the sphere but the triangle.
Each of these structures of consciousness has what Gebser called an efficient and a deficient form: that is to say, an earlier form which works well and a later form which doesn’t. Europe in Gebser’s time was stuck in the deficient form of the mental structure, which he also called the rational structure. This is most clearly seen whenever somebody from that period uttered the phrase “nothing but.” The universe is nothing but dead matter and energy, the psyche is nothing but the activities of the brain, love is nothing but hormones—the list goes on and on, showing the mental structure in its final, terminal period.
This is not the end of the story, however, because the central theme of Gebser’s book was to proclaim the imminent appearance of a new structure of consciousness, the integral structure. This structure synthesizes all the previous structures, permitting all the benefits of the mental structure to be preserved while enriching it with the good parts of the mythical, magical, and archaic structures. Gebser argued that an essential characteristic of the integral structure was “transparency”—a state in which everything is itself but also allows a view of the whole. Thus the whole history of humanity becomes visible through each moment: the origin is ever present.
Gebser warned that the movement from one structure of consciousness to another must not be seen as a matter of evolution or progress. In his view, the emergence of each structure is a disruptive process, a discontinuity of history. He rejected the idea that there was any teleology in the sequence of structures: that is, the notion of a linear development from the archaic structure through intermediate stages to the integral structure was one he explicitly denied. (This is one of the most important ways that Ken Wilber, who claimed to be including Gebser’s insights in his own synthesis, misunderstood or misstated Gebser’s ideas.)
So why was Gebser so confident that the integral structure was busting out all over, like June in the song from the musical Carousel? That’s the theme of the second half of The Ever-Present Origin. He argued that avant-garde trends in every aspect of European culture, from painting and poetry to physics and philosophy, only made sense if they were seen as harbingers of the new integral consciousness. The transformation of art from the representation of three-dimensional visional experiences to complex images that fused space and time—Duchamp’s famous Nude Descending a Staircase is a fine example—showed, in Gebser’s view, the transparency that was a central aspect of the integral experience. The question he offered his readers was simply whether they were satisfied with the smoldering mess of 20th century Europe or were willing to make the effort to embrace the new structure of consciousness, pass through the resulting discontinuity, and enter an exciting new world.
This outline is little more than a rough sketch of an extraordinarily rich and complex vision of human history, and it doesn’t even hint at the vivid portraits Gebser paints of the structures of consciousness and the transitions between them. One deservedly famous passage early on in The Ever-Present Origin describes a crucial marker in the rise of modern Western consciousness—the ascent of Mont Ventoux in southern France in 1336 by the great Italian Renaissance poet and writer Petrarch. As far as written records indicate, this is the first time anyone ever climbed a mountain just for the sake of the view. Petrarch’s description of his adventure, and the troubling emotions it unleashed in him, becomes the basis for a profound and insightful discussion of the birth of perspective in Western art, and from there to the unfolding of modern consciousness.
The same vivid style and keen insight appears in many other places in Gebser’s writing. The Ever-Present Origin is a book worth reading, and in many places worth savoring. At the same time, it has its problems. One of them—the mismatch between theory and the evidence of history mentioned in a previous post—is so pervasive, and so important, that it needs a post of its own. Three others more specific to Gebser deserve close attention here.
The first is the strong flavor of partisanship—one could even call it cheerleading—that runs all through the book. This has a weirdly bipolar nature to it. At some points in the book, Gebser presented the emergence of the integral structure of consciousness as an inevitable event that could be awaited with calm confidence. At other points, it is a luminous hope he called on his readers to strive toward with all their efforts. His thinking may not have been teleological in the strict sense—that is, he admitted that the great leap forward to the integral structure might fail—but the available options all fall along a rigidly linear scheme in which forward movement was the only positive option and the greatest sin was that of falling back into previous structures, a sin for which he denounces the occultists of his time in heated language.
The difficulty here is simply that analysis and advocacy make poor bedfellows. Gebser’s take on the cultural, artistic, and scientific movements of his time suffers from his attempt to present as much of them as he possibly can as harbingers of the coming integral structure, and to denounce the rest as the work of backsliders who aren’t answering the call to commit themselves to the glorious consciousness of the future. If this sounds like Marxist rhetoric, it should; Gebser was emphatically not a Marxist, but the language in which he makes his case has been influenced powerfully by the the pervasive Marxist attitudes of his time, to its detriment. He would be more convincing if he was less obviously trying to convince.
The second problem with The Ever-Present Origin is the same pervasive Eurocentrism I critiqued in Owen Barfield’s work. To Gebser, the mentalities of all human societies outside Europe are shoehorned en masse into his mythical and magical structures—tribal peoples are lumped together into the latter, urban societies into the former, with no apparent awareness of the possibility that this might involve overgeneralizations. To Gebser, the only history that matters since the rise of ancient Egypt took place in Europe starting in the Middle Ages, with a little foreshadowing in Greece and Rome. His brilliant discussion of the rise of linear perspective in Renaissance Europe is unburdened by any sense that the artistic traditions of other cultures might have dealt with space in other ways, and he apparently did not know that atmospheric perspective—the great achievement of Leonardo da Vinci in painting, on which Gebser places a great deal of emphasis—was basic to Chinese painting long before Leonardo was born.
His lack of knowledge about cultures outside Europe occasionally landed him in embarrassing missteps. He noted, for example, that according to German Sinologist Richard Wilhelm, ancient Chinese didn’t differentiate between blue and green: the same word was used for each. From this linguistic detail Gebser drew a series of sweeping conclusions about the archaic structure of consciousness, but he apparently never thought to ask whether this same feature occurs in other languages, in Asia or elsewhere. As it happens, it does—it’s the case in modern Japanese, for example—and that fact undercuts a crucial part of Gebser’s argument. It seems never to have occurred to him that the color terms shared by European languages are a set of closely related linguistic phenomena, not universal human categories of perception.
The third problem with Gebser’s work is simpler but far more serious than the first two just noted. It’s the simple fact that his confidence in the imminent arrival of the integral structure turned out to be misplaced. The social, artistic, and scientific phenomena he identified as symptoms of its emergence proved to be transitory cultural and intellectual fashions. The transparent fusion of space and time in cubist art, for example, soon gave way to the opaque two-dimensional surfaces of abstract expressionism, then to the sterile academicism that pervades the art world today, and finally to the resurgence of classic representational painting and sculpture picking up strength on the cultural fringes right now. Other examples could be listed by the score.
It’s always a risky thing to try to interpret the phenomena of the present as guides to the future. It’s especially risky if you want to claim that what’s about to happen has never happened before, and represents a breakthrough into a wholly new condition of human consciousness, after which nothing will ever be the same again. That’s a risk Gebser was prepared to take. His upbringing and education gave him a painfully clear view of Europe’s twentieth century agonies, and he knew perfectly well that none of the available options—plutocratic capitalism disguised as democracy, state capitalism disguised as socialism, or the uneasy fusion of the two that rose and fell under the banner of fascism—could respond effectively to the crisis of the European-centered world order. That’s why he placed his hopes on a leap to a previously unreached condition of consciousness that would resolve the contradictions none of the other options could.
The dream of some such great leap to Utopia was widespread in Europe and the European diaspora all through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, though Gebser was as far as I know the first to frame it in terms of changes in the structure of consciousness. Karl Marx was responsible for the most influential of those dreams, rooted in the conviction that changing the ownership of the modes of production would be enough all by itself to make human beings behave like angels. Religious versions of that claim had been in circulation since the high Middle Ages, when Joachim of Fiore set things in motion with his prediction of the imminent Age of the Holy Spirit; Charles Fourier, whose giddy dreams of lemonade oceans and vegetarian anti-lions were discussed in a post here a few years back, played a crucial role in reformulating those same visions in secular terms—but neither Joachim nor Fourier appear in the index of Gebser’s book. He might have done better to have studied them and learned from their mistakes.
All this, finally, has certain useful lessons to offer our inquiry into the nature and history of enchantment. One of the basic themes of Gebser’s system is that enchantment in every sense belongs to an outmoded way of thought. In theory, all previous structures of consciousness are taken up and integrated into each new structure as it comes along. In practice, however, Gebser himself angrily dismissed the ideas of the occultists of his time, insisting that they were throwbacks to a dilapidated structure of consciousness.
Ken Wilber and Owen Barfield made similar claims in their own interpretations of the unfolding of consciousness in historical time. All three of these thinkers defined the development of human consciousness in linear terms. Each presented a one-track model in which human beings started out in a state of consciousness appropriate to primitive ignorance, ascended step by step to our present inadequate but vastly superior state of consciousness, and could be expected to keep going further along the same rigidly defined trajectory to a state of even higher consciousness. Even Gebser, who insisted that terms such as “progress” could not be used to describe the history of consciousness, behaved in practice as though integral consciousness was a goal toward which humanity could progress, while the mythical and magical structures were outworn and outmoded, suitable only for “primitive” peoples left behind on the grand march upwards.
That is to say, all three of them took the modern myth of progress and rewrote it in the language of the philosophy of consciousness.
That choice of strategy offers us an unexpected option, however. If in fact the unfolding of consciousness over the five thousand years or so of recorded human history follows a linear trajectory, that fact should be relatively easy to trace in the writings of the world’s literate cultures. If the trajectory shown in those writings, and other cultural phenomena, shows some different track, that will also be worth examining. Two weeks from now, we can take a look at the evidence and see where it leads.